Jan 29, 2015
Positive Peer Pressure

While high school state associations continue to debate the merits of testing athletes for steroids, a program that takes a different approach to reducing their use is gaining ground. ATLAS and ATHENA, which have been 20 years in the making, are peer-led programs that educate athletes about the dangers of performance-enhancing substances–and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle–in a proactive way.
“ATLAS and ATHENA are not simply ‘Just say no’ programs,” says Linn Goldberg, Professor of Medicine and Head of the Division of Health Promotion & Sports Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), who created the curriculum along with Diane Elliot, also a Professor of Medicine at the school. “They provide ways to say no to performance enhancing drugs and supplements in a constructive manner, by giving young athletes the tools to improve their athletic ability. Its activities teach sports nutrition and strength training techniques while also deterring athletes from using harmful substances.”

One of the keys to the programs’ success is that they are gender specific. Athletes Training & Learning to Avoid Steroids (ATLAS) is for male athletes and emphasizes avoiding steroids and other supplements. Athletes Targeting Healthy Exercise & Nutrition Alternatives (ATHENA) caters to female athletes, providing information about eating disorders, weight loss drugs, and depression.

Another key component is that students teach each other. “We found that kids learning from one another is much more powerful than listening to a talking head at the front of the room,” says Goldberg. “Student-athlete leaders present the information in a non-confrontational way and that really works to change attitudes towards steroids completely.”

The lessons are broken into several 45-minute sessions and taught in small groups. During each session, student leaders pass out workbooks, lay out objectives, and teach their peers using role-playing activities, student-created anti-steroid campaigns, and instructional, interactive games.

The program has received a Sports Illustrated Champion Award and was named a Model Program by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as well as an Exemplary Program by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Juvenile Justice. It has also caught the eye of the NFL, which has designated $1.7 million to offer the program in 16 NFL cities, reaching 80 high schools and about 40,000 student-athletes.

Andy Leong, Head Boys’ and Girls’ Track and Field Coach at Lowell High School in San Francisco, which was one of the inaugural schools to partake in the program through NFL funding, says it has made a big impact on his athletes. “This is definitely information our kids normally wouldn’t get,” he says. “Now they really understand the drawbacks of steroids and learning those lessons at a young age will hopefully prevent them from ever using steroids.”

“Our athletes walked away from the program with a lot more knowledge about their bodies and health,” says Kelly Moore, coordinator of the ATLAS and ATHENA programs at Soldan International Studies High School in St. Louis. “I have seen really positive changes in the way our athletes train and prepare for games.”

Moore and Leong also liked how the program gives athletes leadership opportunities. For peer instructors, Leong chose athletes who had previously gone through the program in other sports or the school’s health classes, and found they rose to the occasion. “My leaders stepped up,” he says. “I found some kids who showed leadership potential that I didn’t notice until that day.”

Goldberg and Elliot started generating ideas for ATLAS and ATHENA in 1987 and settled on the first experimental protocol in 1993. “We worked with thousands of athletes and coaches and everybody was videotaped and audiotaped,” says Goldberg. “We also had focus groups with the kids to find out what teaching methods were most effective.”

The first study proving ATLAS’s effectiveness was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1996, and was based on 3,200 athletes. Both programs have been proven to reduce the use of steroids, supplements, drugs, and alcohol, while improving nutrition. ATHENA participants have also shown decreased use of diet pills and amphetamines and reduced injury rates.

Coaches at participating schools can choose to have staff from OHSU train them to run the programs or use instructional manuals and DVDs to prepare. High schools can obtain the materials from OHSU, and Goldberg says he is hoping to expand the NFL partnership to all 32 league cities next year.

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